Tang fish are one of the most beautiful and vibrant saltwater species, so it’s no wonder why they’re such a common addition to marine aquariums.
However, their care needs are a little more complicated than what you might assume…
Due to the species’ sensitivity, particularly when first introduced to an aquarium, it’s important you read up on their care requirements to ensure they live long and happy lives.
Here’s all the information you need to know about keeping surgeons, which includes aquarium size, nutrition, tankmates, and breeding…
Most surgeons can be found in reefs in many major seas and oceans, with the exception of the Mediterranean Sea.
They’re commonly found in the Great Barrier Reef, Pacific Ocean, and Indonesia.
The tang has always been a common addition to many saltwater aquariums due to their visually striking colors.
However, the species (specifically the regal blue tang and yellow tang) became quite a phenomenon after the release of Pixar films, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.
In fact, the clownfish suffered from overfishing after Finding Nemo first came out due to high demand.
There were concerns that this issue would occur with regal blue tangs, too, though this hasn’t been the case.
Fortunately, this tang reproduces plentifully and is found in many different areas in the wild, so they’re not at risk of extinction.
However, localized fishing is still a significant problem.
Surgeonfishes are usually found in reefs and inside grassy or rocky places.
They hide in crevices and holes in corals to protect themselves from predators while they rest.
The tang lives alone, in pairs, or in small groups that consist of up to 10 or 12 individuals.
From time to time, they will form large aggregations that occasionally include doctorfish and other types of surgeonfish.
There are over 70 species of surgeonfishes, but they all share a flat, oval-shaped body.
They come in an assortment of colors and sizes.
Tangs get the name “surgeonfish” due to the erectable bladelike spines they have along the base of their body.
They use these spines as a defense mechanism to ward off predators.
In the aquarium, surgeons will raise their spines if they feel threatened or disturbed, so take great care when you’re cleaning their habitat.
True to their name, their spines can do a hefty bit of damage and can inflict deep wounds or lacerations.
How Do You Tell If Surgeonfishes Are Male or Female?
Surgeons are incredibly hard to sex as the species does not exhibit sexual dimorphism for the most part.
However, it’s thought that male surgeons are larger in size than females and have more pronounced caudal peduncles (the area where the tail meets the body).
Male naso tangs also appear to have a bigger hornlike projection on their forehead than females.
Unless you have more than one tang in your fish tank, these subtle differences between gender would be quite difficult to identify.
What Size Do Surgeonfishes Get To?
Surgeonfishes come in many different sizes, ranging from medium to large.
As juveniles, surgeons are quite small in size, but they get big very quickly as they mature. In fact, in just a few months they can grow several inches in size.
Unfortunately, a lot of beginner fishkeepers mistakenly house tangs in small aquariums due to their small size as juveniles.
Subjecting these animals to an improper-sized tank can stunt its growth and cause an array of health issues, including early death.
As adults, surgeons can grow up to 6 to 12 inches in size, so all species require a large tank to keep them happy and healthy.
- Regal Blue Tang (Paracanthurus hepatus)
- Atlantic Blue Surgeon (Acanthurus coeruleus)
- Clown Surgeon (Acanthurus lineatus)
- Yellowfin Surgeon (Acanthurus xanthopterus)
- Eyestripe Surgeon (Acanthurus dussumieri)
- Brown Surgeon (Acanthurus nigrofuscus)
- Sohal Surgeon (Acanthurus sohal)
- Japan Surgeonfish (Acanthurus japonicus)
- Orangespot Surgeon (Acanthurus olivaceus)
- Powder Blue Tang (Acanthurus leucosternon)
- Red-tailed Surgeon (Acanthurus achilles)
- Sailfin Surgeon (Zebrasoma scopas)
- Ctenochateus Surgeon (Ctenochaetus truncatus)
- Chocolate Surgeon (Acanthurus pyroferus)
- Purple Surgeon (Zebrasoma xanthurum)
- Naso Surgeon (Naso lituratus)
To name the ones that I like…
I personally love regal blue surgeons, ctenochaetus surgeons, and chocolate surgeons.
The latter two are a little more unique-looking and different than some of the more common species kept by aquarists.
There are many species in the tang family and they all come in different colors and patterns.
The majority are incredibly vibrant, making them a beautiful addition to any saltwater aquarium.
- Yellow Tang
The yellow tang, as you might have already guessed based on its name, the yellow tang is bright yellow in color.
- Regal Surgeons
Regal surgeons have a vivid sapphire body with black markings and yellow tail.
- Achilles Surgeonfishes
Achilles surgeonfishes are dark brown or purple-ish in color, with highlights of orange and white around the anal, dorsal, and caudal fins.
They also have a white pattern on their gill covers, as well as a teardrop-shaped fleck of orange near their caudal fin.
- Chocolate Surgeonfishes
Chocolate or mimic surgeonfishes (acanthurus pyroferus) change their color as they mature.
As juveniles, chocolate surgeons are yellow in color to mimic the pygmy angelfish. Doing so helps protect them from predators.
As chocolate surgeons grow older, their yellow coloring dullens and they turn either dark brown or purple, though some remain yellow.
- Sailfin Surgeonfishes
The sailfin or scopas surgeon (zebrasoma scopas) is brown in color with vertical yellow stripes.
It has light freckles on its nose and has a yellow tail with sapphire highlights.
An interesting aspect about scopas tang fish is that it can double its size by raising its anal and dorsal fins.
- Bristletooth Surgeonfish
Although not as popular as the surgeons above, the bristletooth surgeon is another pretty fish to get for a saltwater aquarium.
It sports a brown to orange body covered in bright yellow spots.
The outer part of its eye is ringed in a vivid yellow.
One of the features that sets this fish apart from other tangs is the bristlelike teeth it has protruding out of its mouth.
These teeth can be moved individually and allow the fish to sift and scrape for food.
Zebrasoma types like Sailfin surgeons (zebrasoma velifer) and gem surgeons (zebrasoma gemmatum) are native to the Pacific and Indian Oceans and all have disc-shaped bodies and sail-like fins.
As you can see, surgeons are available in a huge span of colors that can add a lot of vibrancy and beauty to an aquarium.
No matter which one you choose to get, your tank is sure to look stunning!
Do Tangs Make Good Pets?
Surgeons can make good pets provided you give them correct care.
They are intelligent and entertaining species that can liven up any aquarium, but they can be a little sensitive to acclimation and disease as they are poor travelers.
This is why a lot of tang fish die when first added to a tank.
However, once established, they are quite hardy.
Can You Raise Tangs in Captivity?
Surgeons can be raised in captivity, though bear in mind that the majority of specimens sold at pet stores are wild-caught.
This is due to how challenging the species are to breed in captivity and even harder in the home aquarium.
Are Surgeonfishes Good for Beginners?
Surgeons can be suitable for beginners as they are very hardy once accustomed to their aquarium.
It’s best to have a bit of knowledge about keeping aquatic pets beforehand though.
For this reason, I would not recommend tangs for completely new fishkeepers.
Saltwater tanks are more challenging to maintain and get up and running than freshwater or cold water tanks.
If you’ve never kept aquatic pets before, I would advise setting up a tropical or coldwater aquarium first to get the hang of things before you make the jump to saltwater.
Are Surgeonfishes Hard to Take Care Of?
Surgeonfishes aren’t overly hard to take care of, as long as you provide them with the right environment.
The species can get relatively large as they mature; therefore, you’ll need to make sure you get an enclosure that is a decent size.
They are susceptible to disease when they’re first introduced to aquariums, so it’s good to quarantine them for at least two weeks.
This allows you to treat them if necessary without the risk of your other tank’s inhabitants getting sick.
How Long Do Surgeonfishes Live For?
The lifespan of surgeonfishes depends on the species, but most live anywhere between 5 and 30 years.
Five years is the minimum lifespan for tang fish, as many get to at least 10.
Compared to other species of saltwater fish that have short lifespans, surgeons will be with you for quite some time.
As a result, they’re a heavy commitment and not the sort of pet you should get on a whim.
Make sure you have the time, money, and space for surgeons in both the immediate and the future.
Do Surgeonfishes Die Easily?
Unfortunately, surgeons (especially small species) can die easily when first introduced to aquariums as they are poor travelers.
They are sensitive to acclimation and are prone to diseases like marine ich when stressed.
Many surgeons can die a few months, weeks, or even days after being added to tanks for these reasons.
However, once established, the tang is quite hardy.
What Do Surgeonfishes Eat?
Surgeonfishes are herbivores, which means they primarily eat plant matter.
The majority of species feed on various types of macroalgae like caulerpa and gracilis, but they will also occasionally eat meat-based foods.
When keeping surgeons in aquariums, you’ll need to make sure they have access to plenty of algae.
Growing your own macroalgae in a sump or refugium is beneficial when you keep tang species.
Doing so provides your surgeon with plenty of food and helps keep your water quality in check by aiding with biological filtration.
As tangs eat so much algae, you don’t need to worry about it overrunning your setup.
While most surgeonfishes feed on algae already present in their enclosure, it’s best to supplement their diet with other vegetable matter sources.
Nori seaweed is a fantastic meal to get for your tang but fresh vegetables like zucchini or broccoli can be sufficient.
However, not all surgeons are fans of fresh vegetables.
Algae sheets or vegetable-based flakes and pellets can also help you make sure your surgeon gets enough nutrients.
In addition to vegetable-based foods, small amounts of meat-based foods like mysis shrimp and chopped scallops can be offered to your surgeon for a well-balanced diet.
What Is the Best Food for Surgeonfishes?
The best food to get for surgeons is macroalgae grown in a refugium or aquarium sump.
However, if you’d rather feed them store-bought foods, then nori is a good option.
You can get nori seaweed at most Asian supermarkets.
Algae sheets or vegetable-based flakes and pellets can also be added to your tang’s diet to ensure they get everything they need.
Although surgeons mostly feed on vegetable matter, offer them some meaty foods like mysis shrimp or chopped scallops from time to time for balanced nutrition.
How Many Times a Day Should I Feed Surgeonfishes?
You should feed your surgeon at least once daily, ideally at the same time each day.
As the tang is a big feeder, it’s a good idea to feed them 2 to 3 times a day if possible.
If you feed your tang nori or algae sheets, put enough in your fish tank to last 2 to 4 hours.
Tang fish prefer to graze and will munch on the nori/algae sheets for a few hours rather than consume them straight away.
If you feed your tang flakes or pellets, add as much to the enclosure that your tang can eat in a couple of minutes.
Any leftovers should be removed to prevent fouling of the aquarium water.
What Do Tangs Like in Their Setup?
To ensure that your tang fish live as comfortably as possible, there are a few different things you should get for their enclosure such as substrate, lights, and live plants.
The type of substrate you should get for your tang aquarium is mostly down to what you think looks best, but I would recommend sand.
Tang fish enjoy sifting and digging through sand to forage for food.
Sand also looks much more natural than gravel in reef aquariums, especially if you’re going for an ocean aesthetic!
All species of tang originate from warm waters, so you’ll need to make sure you keep them comfortable using a heater in your setup.
Most surgeons prefer the temperature of their water to be between 72 °F to 82 °F, but make sure you look up the exact requirements for the species you own.
Lights are vital in your surgeon’s setup to help create a natural day and night cycle.
It’s also critical for growth of macroalgae and corals.
Strong lighting is important in reef aquariums for growing an algae called zooxanthellae.
This algae feeds your corals, so you need to make sure you have a powerful lighting system.
As coral lives in an underwater environment, it’s best suited to blue-colored lights.
Keep your lights on for 12 hours during the day and turn them off overnight.
Plants And Decorations
Filling your tang’s habitat with live plants helps create a more natural environment for them to explore.
It also provides your pet with shade and cover, as well as an area for algae to grow on.
Although the type of plants you use in your tang’s setup is down to personal preference, some good choices include Halimeda, Red Mangrove Propagule, Green Finger Algae, Dragon’s Tongue Algae, and Turtle Grass Shoots.
What Size Tank Do Surgeonfishes Need?
The tang is incredibly mobile, so you need to make sure your setup is spacious, roomy, and as big as possible.
This is especially important if you’re planning on keeping more than one tang to reduce the risk of aggression.
Large surgeons such as the orangespine unicornfish or sohal tang need to be kept in at least a 400-gallon enclosure, whereas the sailfin tang can be housed in a 180-gallon enclosure (minimum size).
Even small species of tang like pacific blue tangs still require a habitat that’s a good size, even when young.
It’s best to go for tanks that are at least 100 gallons in size, though bigger is always better with this species.
If you’re thinking of keeping a school of small surgeonfishes, you’ll need a large setup to help prevent aggression.
I would not recommend anything under the size of 300 gallons for a school of small tangs.
Like all species of fishes, surgeonfishes need specific water parameters in order for them to thrive.
You need to make sure the tank’s water parameters are suitable for surgeons to keep them happy and healthy.
Tangs require specific water parameters to ensure they survive in the home aquarium, so you need to make sure your tank water is up to scratch.
As surgeons are saltwater species, you need to ensure you get the right salinity level in your water for them to survive.
You’ll also need to check the water chemistry of your tang’s enclosure.
Depending on the species of tang you own, the water parameters will differ slightly.
Regal Blue Tang
For example, the regal blue tang prefers its water temperature at between 72 °F and 78 °F, with a total alkalinity between 8 and 12 dKH.
The pH should be between 8.1 and 8.4, and specific gravity should be around 1.020 to 1.025.
Most species of tang will do well in these water parameters, but it’s a good idea to check the exact requirements for the type of tang you want to get.
Water changes are necessary in a saltwater tank to ensure your water quality doesn’t deteriorate.
Maintaining good water quality is important for your aquatic pet to prevent disease and sickness.
Although your filter will help keep your tank clean, it can’t do all the heavy lifting.
A little bit of labor from you is required to stop your tang’s enclosure getting too dirty.
As a general rule of thumb, you should change around 20% of the water once a week.
While some aquarists go 2 weeks or a month without changing their tank water, this greatly depends on your tank size and stocking choices.
Undersized and overstocked tanks will need more frequent water changes than big understocked tanks.
As the tang has a heavy bioload, it’s best not to go over one week without a water change.
Additionally, if your aquatic test results show large phosphate or nitrate levels, you will need to perform bigger and more regular water changes.
Most species from the surgeonfish family are best kept at temperatures between 72 °F and 82 °F.
However, this might vary slightly depending on the type you own.
Make sure you check the preferred water temperature of the tang species you are looking to keep.
Water pH Level
A lot of species of tang do well at a pH level between 8.1 and 8.4, though this might differ marginally for certain types.
As always, read up on the specific pH requirements for the type of tang you own or want to get.
Although you can successfully keep small schools of surgeons together, this greatly depends on the size of your setup and the personalities of each individual.
Housing more than one tang in a little enclosure often ends in disaster.
Not all aquatic life species are compatible with one another, especially if they have aggressive tendencies like surgeonfishes.
What Fish Are Compatible with Surgeonfishes?
Despite being aggressive towards their own kind, tangs often get along fine with other species.
It’s best to avoid tank mates that are a similar shape or color to them, though.
Clownfish, lionfish, chromis, wrasses, and Banggai cardinalfish are a few good stocking choices for a tang setup.
If possible, it’s a good idea to add your tang last.
Can Surgeonfishes Live Alone?
Tangs can live alone.
In fact, due to their aggressive nature, it’s best to keep just one in the home aquarium.
This is especially true if you don’t have an extensive setup.
Can Tangs Be Kept Together?
Surgeonfishes can sometimes be kept together successfully, but a lot of it boils down to the personalities of tang’s.
Some specimens might never tolerate other surgeons, while others might be more easy-going.
The size of your tang’s enclosure is also key when keeping more than one tang.
Make sure you opt for a large setup to help spread out the aggression.
This gives each tang their own space and territory, reducing the chances of them attacking one another.
Keeping Multiple Tangs
If you’re planning on keeping more than one tang, it’s best to introduce them to your enclosure at the same time rather than waiting several months to add a second specimen.
Bear in mind that keeping a school of tangs isn’t always successful.
Be prepared and make sure you have spare tanks available or a pet store that can take in your pet if things don’t go according to plan.
Which Surgeonfishes Can Be Kept Together?
As long as you have a big enough setup, it’s possible to house any species of tangs together.
However, as I mentioned above, housing multiple surgeons together doesn’t always end well.
Signs of a Healthy Fish
When choosing a tang, you should inspect them for signs of illness, weakness, or any other abnormalities.
Only get the healthiest specimen to reduce the risk of disease or premature death.
But how do you identify a healthy tang?
What to Check
First thing’s first, check the tang over for signs of disease like white specks, marks, cuts, lesions, cloudy eyes, faded color, and rapid breathing.
Then make sure the tang is well-fed and doesn’t look malnourished or thin.
Lastly, examine the tang’s mobility and swimming behavior.
Are they active or are they listless and sitting near the bottom of the tank?
By thoroughly studying the fish at your pet store, you will be able to make sure that the one you get is fit and healthy.
Identifying when your tang is unwell or not quite themselves is crucial for treating them correctly.
General red flags of a sick tang include:’
- Poor appetite
- Loss of color
- Clamped fins
- Cloudy eyes
- Rapid breathing
- Erratic swimming pattern
- Red gills
- Frayed fins
Common Illnesses and Diseases
As the tang is susceptible to disease, it’s good to understand and learn more about some of the most common illnesses you’ll run into when keeping this pet.
Fin rot is one of the most common diseases caused by either fungi or bacteria, though usually the latter.
It’s typically brought on by poor water quality.
While we all get behind on chores from time to time, your tang’s setup is definitely one task you need to keep on top of.
Make sure you conduct regular and proper maintenance on your tang’s tank to help prevent diseases like fin rot.
Other Possible Cause
If you have aggressive inhabitants in your tang’s enclosure that are nipping or biting your other aquatic pets, fin rot is quite a common secondary infection.
Tell-tale signs of fin rot include fraying or reddening fins.
Severe cases can result in the complete destruction of the fin, which may never grow back normally.
Can Lead to Death
If left untreated, fin rot can eventually spread to your tang’s whole body and lead to death.
The best way to treat fin rot is to act quickly before the fins are critically damaged.
Bacterial fin rot should be treated with an antibacterial medication, while fungal fin rot should be treated with antifungal medication.
Improving the quality of your water by performing regular water changes will also assist with your fish’s recovery and help them regrow their fins.
Surgeons are prone to marine ich (also known as marine white spot disease), particularly when they are first added to your setup, so it’s important that you recognize the tell-tale signs of this disease.
Marine ich is caused by the parasite Crytopcaryon irritans and is quite easy to identify as its main sign is white spots making your surgeon look like it has been covered in specks of salt.
These tiny white spots often affect the body, fins, and gills of your tang.
The disease is similar to freshwater ich in terms of symptoms, but a different parasite causes it.
Marine white spot disease is extremely contagious and has a greater impact on aquatic pets that are already weakened or stressed.
Marine ich has a rather complex multi-step life cycle.
- Trophont stage
The first stage is the feeding or trophont stage.
This is when the parasites are swimming under your tang’s skin and gills, eating cells and fluids, and damaging their tissues.
At this point, your tang is weakened and you will usually notice symptoms like white spots on their body
Treating the parasites in the trophont stage isn’t normally effective as they’re protected under your tang’s skin.
Once the trophants have finished feeding, they will leave your tang’s body as a protomant.
At this stage the parasites are unable to swim and will fall to the bottom of the tank.
In a few hours they become a tomont and become a hardened cyst that will soon hatch.
Inside the cyst lies hundreds of new parasites that are called tomites.
After several days (sometimes weeks), the cyst breaks open and releases free-swimming theronts.
These theronts are hunting for hosts to attack.
It is during this stage that marine ich is most sensitive to medication.
The theronts have about 6 hours to locate a host.
Once they do, they will burrow into your tang’s skin and become a trophont.
Then the cycle repeats itself.
As marine ich has such a complex life cycle, an outbreak in your tang’s enclosure can be difficult to treat if not done correctly.
In severe cases, the parasite can wipe out your entire setup.
While white spots are the primary symptom of marine ich, other signs include pale gills, cloudy eyes, ragged fins, lethargy, flashing, and increased mucus production.
Freshwater ich is commonly treated by increasing the water temperature to speed up the parasite’s life cycle, but this method might not be suitable for marine ich.
One of the easiest ways to treat marine ich is to use a copper treatment.
Increasing the salinity of your water can also be effective, as can freshwater dips and the transfer method.
Wild surgeonfishes often swim and feed in schools, so they will occasionally spawn in schools.
It’s not unheard of for huge groups of surgeonfish to form near the full moon and spawn altogether.
Surgeons have a mating ritual in which the male and female dance in a circular pattern around one another.
The female will lay her eggs and the male will fertilize them externally.
These fish are pelagic spawners.
This means they release buoyant eggs into the water column where they will float until they are ready to hatch.
Can Tangs Breed in Captivity?
Surgeons are incredibly tricky to breed in captivity, and very few aquarists have successfully done it.
In fact, the first time the regal surgeon was bred in captivity was in 2016.
Surgeonfishes are hard to breed in aquariums for several reasons.
For one, it is almost impossible to distinguish between males and females.
Secondly, it’s hard to determine the right environment for the development of larvae and fry.
And thirdly, tangs prefer to spawn in vast open spaces with a lot of vertical height, a factor which is limited in most home setups.
How Do I Get Surgeonfishes to Breed?
It’s unlikely that you will have much luck getting tangs to breed in your tank.
However, if you’re lucky enough to own both a male and a female surgeon, then you might get to see them perform a mating dance and attempt to spawn.
You’ll need a very large enclosure, ideally with a lot of vertical height and no predators.
Your tank water will also need to be pristine.
Remember to manage your expectations though, as surgeons are extremely hard to breed in captivity.
All species of surgeonfishes are attractive and striking additions to a saltwater tank, but even smaller types need at least a 100-gallon aquarium.
Unfortunately, they are not the sort of fish you can house in a nano tank as they can reach 6 to 12 inches in size.
There are over 70 species, which gives you a lot of choices when it comes to choosing one for your setup.
They can live anywhere from 5 to 30 years, so you will need to make sure you’re prepared to own one for a substantial period of time.
Care and Maintenance
Surgeons can be a bit sensitive when they are initially introduced to aquariums as they are poor travelers.
They’re also prone to marine ich.
Sadly, this results in many surgeons dying shortly after purchase.
On the plus side, once established, the tang is normally quite hardy.
While they can make good beginner fish, they’re better suited to aquarists who already know a little about keeping aquatic pets.
Not Ideal For Beginners
If you’ve never owned fish before, it’s worth setting up a freshwater or coldwater tank first to get the gist of things before you take the plunge to saltwater tanks.
Surgeons are herbivores and should be fed primarily plant matter, ideally macroalgae grown in a sump or refugium.
Nori, algae sheets, vegetable-based flakes or pellets, and the odd portion of meaty foods like mysis shrimp will help supplement your tang’s diet.
Due to their aggressive nature, surgeons are often aggressive towards their own kind.
Unless you own an extremely large tank, it’s best to keep just one.
They can be kept with most other species like clownfish and chromis with little problems.
Lastly, this fish is very difficult to spawn in captivity as they need specific breeding requirements that are hard to replicate in home aquariums.
The majority of, if not all, specimens found in pet stores are wild-caught.
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Let them see how amazing tangs are.